WENDY ELLIOTT: Dementia means out of one’s mind

Wendy Elliott
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We're sitting in the front row of the concert hall. The symphony is warming up. The conductor in his penguin suit makes his entrance, baton in hand.  Beside me, my mother pipes up, "would you look at his hair." OK, he does have a 1960s-style pompadour, long on the top and short on the sides, but her words make me want to crawl under my cushioned seat.

On another evening, we are seated in our local cinema. Being a co-operative, sometimes bulbs need changing before a flick can start. The audience waits companionably in the near dark.

Suddenly my mother seizes the shoulders of the woman in front of her and mutters something about being too tall for her to see over. The woman shrinks down, hunching her shoulders. Mom looks around for another victim and, not fond of beards on men, announces to all and sundry that the stranger seated near us has a wire brush on his face.

I cringe. This is worse than any of the embarrassing things my three children ever did. My mother looks normal, but can give voice to the most outlandish opinions. I lean forward and whisper in the poor woman's ear, ‘’she has Alzheimer's.”

That was seven years ago. The need to try and explain away her behaviour anytime we head out in public is long gone now.

My mother loved a social scene. She adored it when people greeted her by name and she had years of practice feigning recognition.

She used to call me at 6 a.m. when the gloom confused her. Is it night or day? That symptom is called Sundowners. She could not tell my sons apart or differentiate between my brothers.

For a time, she would phone in the early evening anxious that it was her first night in a residential care facility. Wedgewood House was her home for the first four years after my dad, her longtime caregiver, died. Imagine the horror of learning over and over that the spouse you utterly depended on is gone. I had to tell her three times before it stuck. Each time, she reacted differently. I cannot conceive of the existential horror of reliving fear and bad news over and over again.

I cannot conceive of the existential horror of reliving fear and bad news over and over again

The many caregivers who tended my mother were utterly patient people. Eventually, she needed a higher level of care.

I remember when mom went for daily walks - alone. Heading around downtown Kentville, she developed the habit of buying pain medication too often. So the pharmacy called to report the pattern, lest she overdose.

When I went in to talk with them, a clerk kindly suggested keeping a supply of mints in her medicine chest. She told me that her grandmother had consumed quite a few that way - thinking she was acting independently. We invested in Tic-tac’s after that.

Then Mom was too unsteady to attempt strolls or watch traffic from the bus shelter. I am proud of the fact she never got physically lost. All the phone calls I got from friends worried about her in traffic were wonderful, but unwarranted.

Alzheimer’s is one incredibly long, slow decline. Folks in Africa say it takes a village to raise a child, but the last ten years taught me that a whole community is required to endow the helpless elderly with some dignity.



Organizations: Wedgewood House

Geographic location: Kentville, Africa

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